As many of you will know, I love nothing more than an intriguing real-life Victorian murder mystery so when I was invited to review journalist Stephen Bates’s new book, The Poisoner: the Life and Crimes of Victorian England’s Most Notorious Doctor, I knew I was in for a treat. Stephen kindly agreed to share the experiences of his quest to find out the truth about the ‘Prince of Poisoners’:
This is your first book about Victorian crime. What drew you initially to explore the story of William Palmer?
The Poisoner is my first book about a Victorian crime but I have studied the Victorian period: particularly its politics and Victorian society – I studied it at university many years ago and my last book, published earlier this year “Penny Loaves and Butter Cheap” was about Britain in the year 1846, so it is an era that has long fascinated me.
I’ve got a strangely long-lived family too: my grandfathers were both alive (just) at the time of Palmer’s trial (they died long before I was born of course…) but I had other relatives I knew quite well as I was growing up who were born in the 1870s, so it has never felt a hugely remote period to me. One of them could remember delivering newspapers for her father at the age of five, which would have been 1884, so was probably taking round the news of Jack the Ripper in her childhood! She lived to be 102 and died in the early 1980s.
Anyway, Palmer. I’ve been wracking my brains to remember why I was interested in him. The best I can do is that I was taken to Madam Tussauds as a child and, although I didn’t dare go into the Chamber of Horrors, I remember we bought a brochure which had photographs of the waxworks in it and one was of this highly respectable-looking, even handsome man called William Palmer but without any further details about him and it fascinated me to find out what he was doing in there. That would have been perfectly possible as Palmer’s waxwork was in the Chamber of Horrors for about 120 years. I am not saying I was obsessive about him – that would have been creepy – but I was always meaning to find out a bit more about what he’d done and when I discovered that no one had written about the case for many years I thought it was a story worth telling as a slice of little-known Victorian life.
How do you think your experience as a professional journalist influenced your writing about the subject?
I am not sure it did too much, except, hopefully, in the marshalling of the story and making it readable and accessible. I covered murder cases during my career as a journalist so I was always conscious of how to approach such a story, with due reverence for the deceased but an eye for the quirks of the case and maybe just a bit of humour to lighten the grimness.
What was the most challenging aspect of preparing the material for the book and writing about this specific case?
It was really discovering sources and finding new material about a case which had long ago been consigned to a certain narrative – essentially the one that contemporary journalists reported, that Palmer was a chilling and self-possessed mass murderer: that narrative has never really been questioned, even in recent crime books. The story I found looking into the original material in the archives was much more interesting and questioning than that. For instance, I went to the archives in Stafford expecting to find a few broadsheets and there were Palmer’s love letters to his mistress, in his own handwriting – wow! That made the hairs stand up on the back of my head. They’ve never really been published in full – earlier writers who saw them 100 years ago merely said they were too disgusting to print – but I felt they revealed a side of Victorian life that we don’t tend to think about. Then I went to the National Archives at Kew expecting from the catalogue to find six piece of paper about the case and found instead six boxes full – quite a lot of it evidently never seen since 1856, including lawyers’ notes obviously written in court while the case was going on and the sad petition of the poorer members of the jury asking for compensation for having to close their shops for a fortnight and being told it would be unconscionable to pay them.
Have any facts or new sources come to light that have given further insight into the subject?
I seem to have strayed into this with the previous answer! Yes – quite a lot. I found the letters written to Palmer by the moneylenders quite chilling – “if anything should happen, you know who to blame” etc. It’s clear he was in desperate financial trouble – something that’s always been downplayed or scarcely mentioned in other histories about the case, so it is quite clear he was desperate, So far from being “the Prince of Poisoners” I think he was a desperate, ordinary, rather rascally man who found himself in deep trouble, casting about for a way out – and in that probably not unlike a lot of other “respectable” Victorian gentlemen. That maybe doesn’t have quite the resonance of being a chilling mass murderer, but it does make him slightly more human and the story, in my view, more interesting for it.
Do you think there were other victims? I think he probably did kill a couple of other people and got away with it, probably his wife and he certainly didn’t try very hard to keep his brother alive – though Walter was making a pretty good fist of drinking himself to death anyway. I certainly don’t think it is possible to say that William Palmer killed a dozen or more. I think he probably killed Cooke, though not necessarily with strychnine (Professor Hargreaves had a fascinating alternative suggestion in the book) but that doesn’t make him a mass murderer.
Do you have a personal connection with Rugeley or develop closer links?
Until a couple of weeks ago I’d have said no direct links at all, then at a family party I discovered my niece’s husband comes from Hednesford, which is just across Cannock Chase and where Palmer kept his racehorses, so there is a distant connection (though I don’t think he had really heard of Palmer!) Of course I made several trips to Rugeley during the research for the bookand met a number of people there, especially Dave Lewis, a former local primary teacher who is fascinated by the case and has set up the excellent William Palmer website (www.williamplamer.co.uk) and very kindly escorted me around to all the relevant sites in the case. Not sure I’d particularly want to go back to the Shrew (the Talbot Arms as was…) – it’s not the nicest pub in the world these days, unfortunately!
Were there details that shocked you or made you reflect more deeply on Victorian life?
That’s a good question – yes, a lot. I didn’t know anything about Victorian horse racing, or the insurance industry come to that – both fascinating – and, as a former journalist, reading the contemporary reports of the case, I was struck by how similarly journalists often approach a story now as then. Their reporting was anything but dull – punctilious, witty, detailed (much more detailed than we would go into now) and the presentation was quite lively too – and outrageously prejudicial, just as it might be now in such a notorious case. There were so many points where the story seemed to have resonances with contemporary life: especially the desperation of dealing with money lenders.
Do you have any plans to delve further into the dark world of Victorian crime?
I am actually a book on from The Poisoner: I’ve just completed the text of a book about Britain in 1815, the year of Waterloo, which will be published early next year, I hope, and I am about to start a book about the Royal family called Royalty Inc. which should come out in September 2015 to coincide with the Queen’s reign passing Queen Victoria’s in length – I used to be The Guardian’s royal correspondent for a number of years. But I’d love to do another true crime book, if I can find a suitable case – any suggestions?
The Poisoner is a gripping book that explores the shocking crimes of William Palmer, within a new and fascinating narrative – a must read for all lovers of Victorian crime. It is available now from Duckworth Publishers.
Many thanks to Stephen for his excellent interview and to Melissa Tricoire for an advance copy.